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Lincoln Mitchell Headshot

Is America Ready for Another Bush-Clinton Campaign?

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With the 2016 presidential election only -- yes, only -- 30 months away, the possibility of a Clinton-Bush contest is something that is looking increasingly likely. That contest would pit the country's two most famous political families against each other for the first time since 1992. Jeb Bush would be the third Bush to seek the presidency since 1980, while Hillary Clinton would be the second Clinton to seek that office since 1992. Since 1980, a Clinton or Bush has either been on the ticket or made a strong bid to be on the ticket in every election but one. A Clinton-Bush matchup in 2016 would be the culmination of that. There have been powerful political families in the US before, including the Kennedy, Adams and Byrd families, but this election could take that dynamic to a new and higher level.

Describing Hillary Clinton as the front-runner for her party's nomination is an understatement. There are no other announced candidates, even though Clinton herself has not yet formally announced. Moreover, other potential candidates, like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, have gone out of their way to say they are not interested in running so long as Clinton is even considering the race. The extent to which Democrats are trying to make sure Clinton is the nominee by acclimation is striking.

Jeb Bush is in a different situation. The Republican field already includes several candidates who, while not yet formally announced, need to be taken seriously, including Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Nonetheless, Bush is among the very strongest Republican candidates in recent polls, and if he runs, will very likely benefit from the organization, name recognition and relationships cultivated over the last three or four decades by his father and brother.

Bush and Clinton are, by the standards of our era, highly qualified to be president. Bush is a successful politician while Clinton, despite never having won a competitive election, looks like a very formidable candidate for 2016. In the context of a system that is byzantine, quirky and driven by moneyed interests, Clinton and Bush have come by their front-runner status honestly. They both benefit from name recognition and formidable fundraising and political networks, but they also both have the skill set and resume that is necessary to be a serious candidate for president.

The growing possibility of another Clinton-Bush race is also something that reflects significant problems with our democracy. In most other countries, the spouse of a former president running against the son and brother of another former president would be prima facie viewed as evidence of structural problems with the country and probably widespread corruption as well. This election will not be seen that way because, well, Hillary Clinton is beloved by many Democrats, and Bush can become beloved by many Republicans if he is seen as the guy who can beat Clinton. It is probably, however, worth taking a closer a look about what a Clinton-Bush matchup tells us about about our democracy.

A Clinton-Bush election would be a reminder of the extraordinary cost of entry into the presidential race. While it is reasonable that not anybody can be a viable candidate for president, possessing a famous name should not be a prerequisite, but a famous name is the best way to raise enough money, particularly early in the race, to be a serious candidate. This match-up would also demonstrate the narrow spectrum in which American politics plays out. Clinton and Bush both represent the mainstream of their respective parties and share similar views on much of foreign policy and on economic policy to a greater degree than many are comfortable recognizing. A Clinton-Bush race would be one in which there would be little substantive disagreement on most foreign policy issues and where economic debate would be stronger, but still rest on a consensus that would not probe the larger structural problems of the American economy.

A Clinton-Bush election would be competitive, but would inevitably end in a victory for the political establishment. Whoever won that election would be well-prepared to govern and extremely familiar with Washington, the presidency and partisan politics, but bereft of any innovative approaches or comprehensive critiques of the political system. This will guarantee stability and continuity, despite some policy differences, but it will also contribute to the growing sense among many Americans regardless of ideology that electoral politics is a mug's game, dominated by a few powerful families with few points of entry for ordinary Americans.